I walked down to the Los Angeles Film School last night for a screening of ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas’, followed by a Q&A with writer/director/actor guerilla filmmaker Edward Burns. He talks great shop. Earlier this year, for a Q&A of his film ‘Newlyweds’, he talked for nearly 2.5 hours. Not shy.
In the past few years, Burns’s become a big student of story structure (Snyder, McKee, Field, et al.), and explained that he’s converted one of his walls to The Board, inspired by Blake Snyder. The Board is a story plotting tool consisting of four rows: Act One, First Half of Act Two, Second Half of Act Two, Act Three. Using index cards, The Board enables you to modularly experiment with the placement of your plot points, allowing you to “see” the story (and problems) at a glance.
After the show last night, I stuck around to chat with Ed a bit about some specific plotting decisions he made in the Fitzgerald script. Because of this:
A couple days ago I watched the film’s trailer, and some of the story’s themes were obvious. Family, grudges, forgiveness, etc. From the trailer, you gather that the movie’s about a huge family in New York (seven grown siblings and their mother), with an estranged father who had walked on the family decades ago. This Christmas, for some reason, the father has approached the family and declared that he wants to spend Christmas with them. The trailer indicates that he receives immediate resistance from the ex-wife and each of the kids, for a variety of reasons. Burns plays the eldest son of the bunch, who has assumed sort of a patriarchal role, and is the diplomatic key in getting his father’s wish granted.
Just as the trailer was ending, I turned to M and said, “You know what would be a good twist? At the end, have it revealed that the father is dying of cancer, and has only a few months to live.”
“I’d watch that,” she said.
[WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!]
Back to the show last night. At about the 40-minute mark, guess what? Yep. It’s revealed that the father has pancreatic cancer, and wants to have one last Christmas with his family to make things right. I immediately felt a personal connection to the craftsmanship of the film. But while the cancer was indeed there, it’s not where I would have put it. I would’ve probably saved it for the finale, or perhaps the end of Act Two to push it down the stretch.
I told Ed about this, and asked if, in the early outlining stage, he ever played around with the location of that cancer reveal. He laughed, and said, yes, it was a big topic of convo with one of his colleagues. For a while, he was planning to use the cancer reveal as a strong “Break into Act Three” (minute 85 or so), but ended up needing the device at minute 40 in order to push the story through Act Two, keeping the father’s character sympathetic enough to root for him.
I’d have liked to see a version of that story with the cancer reveal used at the Break into Three, but, of course, that’d be starting over. Without that early reveal to fuel Act Two, Ed would’ve needed to find other ways for the family to accept their father into the house for Christmas WITHOUT pitying his health. Exactly what those ways are was never written, and would’ve required some heavy lifting, but damn. That’ve been a great story. It would’ve had the kids forgiving their father without knowing he was sick, which is infinitely more difficult.
Burns also talked about his favorite Christmas movie, which is mine as well: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. He pointed out that the power of that film, and what justifies the “Capracorn” ending, is that it’s 100% earned. George Bailey endures some really dark stuff in Act Two, and by the time we get to the cathartic ending, you just can’t get too sappy. It’s deserved. All other bets are off.
For the record, Burns is one of the coolest, most gracious dudes you could ever meet. After the Q&A, it’s customary for the guest to sign posters for the Los Angeles Film School and such. When asked by the host to do so, Burns kindly refused, declaring that he’ll sign them after he’s had a chance to meet the peeps who’d lined up to meet him personally. The best kind of snub.